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While I've been busy writing reviews on the latest from Samsung, Panasonic, LG, and others, one very highly regarded brand kept putting out one high performance TV after another. A brand that, despite having hit some rough roads along the way (take the infamous SXRD green blob, for example), has been at or near the top in overall picture quality through the years. In retrospect, I found that I have actually had a long history with them.
It started in the 80's and 90's with the standard definition Trinitron direct view CRT. Videophiles like me took pride in our big sound/small picture home theaters, featuring small 4:3 Trinitrons hooked to laserdisc players via S-Video cables. Then, in the early years of HD, I became mightily impressed with their HD CRT rear projectors, despite fierce battling battling between Pioneer and Mitsubishi for world champion status (I happened to be one of the minority who believed that, overall, neither Pioneer nor Mitsubishi were truly the best). Their CRT expertise was further demonstrated in their extremely highly regarded G70 and G90 CRT front projectors, the smaller of which later spent some happy hours in my tiny home theater. Then the 34XBR960, the best direct view HD CRT I've ever seen, turbo charged my career and sent me into different states making the best look even better. They then began to concentrate on challenging DLP rear projectors with their beautiful looking but trouble prone SXRD rear projectors. I bought what was arguably the best looking big screen HDTV at the time: a 60XBR1 SXRD. After losing their shirts on countless repairs and replacements for trouble prone SXRD rear projectors, they abandoned them abruptly and concentrated heavily on LCD technology. I've had the opportunity to calibrate many of their LCDs, including the XBR8 and HX909 local dimming LED models, though due to time constraints was not able to evaluate them for a full review. So when Chris called to tell me he had a new Sony XBR 55HX929 at Cleveland Plasma that I could review, I was more than ready.
The HX929 is one attractive set. The super thin profile and one piece glass front make it look very sleek, though the screen does pick up some sharp reflections. Thankfully, despite the reflections, the screen stays impressively dark in high ambient light, which means you'll still see relatively rich contrast even in normal lighting conditions. However, as with any TV, watching in a dark room still gives the best image. One downside the HX929 shares with other top of the line LED LCD sets is it's restrictive viewing angle. Sure, you can see
the image even at extreme angles. And that's enough for watching Dora reruns with the kids, and maybe even for catching up on the news while you're in the kitchen preparing breakfast. But for critical viewers, contrast and color will start to degrade at even slight distances from screen center. If you mount the HX929 high up, make sure it can be tilted down; and take care to place your primary viewing seat directly in line with the set.
The HX929 is a full local dimming LED backlight LED. Forget those limited and handicapped "zone" dimming or edge lit sets. A true, full local dimming set offers much higher contrast ratio and better uniformity. It may be a bit heavier, or use a bit more electricity; but that won't amount to a hill 'o beans once you spend some time with the picture. A local dimming display divides the LED backlight into zones, or areas of separate control, and only lights up the backlight behind the portion(s) of the screen that contain picture content. This results in a tremendous increase in contrast, though the size and number of dimming zones will have a large impact on the effectiveness of the local dimming and also on a side effect known as haloing.
When I visited the Sony display at the CEDIA tradeshow and asked how many zones the local dimming was divided up into, the representative said, "Enough to make it look great!" While manufacturers enjoy touting numbers that mean little or nothing to the picture quality, like 240 or 480 Hz, for some reason they can be reluctant to share specs that really do matter. In an edge lit
zone dimming display, the dimming is usually divided up into around a dozen or so zones. That helps the contrast some, but it also causes quite a few problems with uneven illumination and black letterbox bars that glow and flash at times in certain areas.
On the other hand, full local dimming
sets have well over 70 zones, depending on the size and model line. Last year's Sony 52HX909
featured 96 local dimming zones, 12 columns by 8 rows, 9 LEDs per block, white LED’s with gamut range exceeding ATSC specs, and 12-bits per segment for dimming and blinking control (thanks to display veteran at AVS for that info). That is enough to give a much more impressive contrast improvement, and side effects are reduced. Some haloing, or glowing, around objects in the image may remain, however. This effect is most noticeable in a totally dark room, and becomes much worse off axis.
To test the HX929's haloing, I found a "torture test" image that featured a mixture of very dark and bright objects, paused it, and turned out the lights. I found that haloing was obvious off axis, as expected. However, even on axis, it was quite distracting, especially around the screen edges, when viewing up close (around 7 feet away). It was only somewhat noticeable at 8-9 feet. As I moved farther from the screen, the effect diminished until it was no longer very noticeable at about 13 feet. The distance that I considered the best compromise between image size and haloing was around 10 feet. Even if the viewer's head is at the center of the screen, the screen corners are going to be at a sharper off axis angle at 5 feet away than at 15 feet away. At long distances, the angle is shallow enough to have little or no impact on the image. Even with conventional LCDs there may be problems with color and contrast around the edges when viewing too close, due to similar off axis degradation. Haloing is not unique to this TV; it's a price that has to be paid for the greatly increased contrast of a local dimming LED set. All else being equal, it will be less noticeable on a set with more zones and more noticeable on a set with fewer zones. Before calibration:
With the set in a somewhat darkened room, I put in my favorite 1080P/24 demo material. Before making any picture adjustments at all, the vibrancy of the colors jumped out at me. Unfortunately, it really was going overboard; the colors were over the top. I found objects to be too colorful, though flesh tones were not too offensive. The vegetables in the DVE restaurant scene were too colored and vibrant, yet the flesh tones looked only slightly rich.
There was some of the dreaded soap opera effect, with pans and movement looking too smoothed out, but not as strong and offensive as with most LCDs. The texture of the picture itself looked smooth when playing, but surprisingly grainy when paused (a sure indication of strong noise reduction). The picture had lots
of pop and vibrancy, and also showed a good sense of depth. Dark objects in the image were tinted slightly bluish. There was good shadow detail despite the bluish tinge, though the visibility of dark images was scene dependent. In other words, images with bright objects in them tended to make dark objects sink down into black. Despite the vibrancy, the color tone was slightly cool and clinical. However, the HX929 did have an exciting, involving picture.
When I changed the scene selection to cinema, which brought up the cinema 1 picture mode, overall the picture looked much more lifelike. I saw more accurate colors, combined with excellent pans and motion, and great flesh tones. Dark objects in images were very easy to see, and the picture was stable and natural. The texture of the image was smooth, but not in an artificial noise-reduction sort of way. The image looked very accurate, but it lacked a bit of depth and dimensionality. Although just a bit tame and bland, this was incredibly good before calibration performance. Calibration:
Unlike some tricky sets like the Sharp Quattrons or even more well behaved sets like the Samsung LEDs, I found the HX929 to be quite simple and straightforward to calibrate. There are one or two things that could trip a calibrator up, though. To avoid erratic readings, in Home menu, under picture & display, turn ambient sensor off. Also, be aware how measurement windows and local dimming can interact; it may be advisable to use full fields and/or turn the smart dimming off just while taking the readings.
Since the last SXRD rear projection models, Sony has taken most, if not all, useful calibration adjustments out of the service menu and put them in the advanced user menu instead.
Compared to last year's HX909, I found small but welcome improvements in after calibration grayscale tracking, gamma, color gamut (purity), and color intensities. All of these measurements were reference quality after calibration. In addition, 1080P resolution was strong and full. Interestingly, the game scene measured and looked virtually identical to cinema with the same numbers and settings. After calibration:
I had been very impressed with Sony's 52HX909, so I was expecting great performance from the HX929. Boy, did I get it! The HX929's image proved to be both exciting and
accurate after calibration; in other words, it has a huge "Wow!" factor. I saw superb color and pop; rich but not overdone flesh tones; and truly black backgrounds. The image had excellent fine detail, and pans and motion looked very good. Dark objects in images were stable and true: they were not too dark that they sunk into the black background, but not so bright that they looked washed out or exaggerated. Overall picture quality was very Kuro-esque; rich contrast, vibrant, and true to life.
I did not get a chance to evaluate the HX929's 3D performance. However, I was very impressed with the 3D performance of the 52HX909; it was bright, exciting, and as natural as I've seen on a 3DTV. I would expect the HX929's 3D performance to be similar, if not improved, over the HX909's.Comparison with Sharp 732:
I had just calibrated one of Sharp's 70" 732 LED LCDs, and since it happened to be sitting right beside the HX929, a comparison was easy to do. I like the 732, and feel it gives an excellent bang for the buck. However, it is not a very fair fight since the 732 is 15" larger and significantly less expensive than the Sony. Nevertheless, here is what I found:
The Sharp’s color was not quite as refined; flesh tones and colored objects were not quite as lifelike. Fortunately for the Sharp, it has very extensive color adjustments. After making a very small after calibration tweak to the red CMS, the Sharp held it's own. In fact, I was surprised that, even though the Sony's color was superb and a little more lifelike overall, clouds and blue skies looked a bit truer on the Sharp. This comparison showed up a very slight purplish tone in the Sony's blue, which I had not seen until in direct comparison with another display with a possibly more accurate blue.
Shadow detail was a bit exaggerated on Sharp; objects like charcoal gray suits or dark hair were not dark enough. The Sony seemed to have the perfect balance.
There was a bit more depth in the Sony's image.
A bit of DSE (dirty screen effect) was noticeable on the Sharp with moving white objects.
There was much richer contrast and more pop on the Sony; blacks blended in with the bezel on the Sony, but glowed slightly blue-gray on Sharp with picture content. It should be noted that the Sharp does not share the Sony's local dimming backlight technology. However, even with Dynamic LED turned off, there was very slightly better contrast on the Sony.
Uniformity slightly better on Sharp; a white field looked slightly brighter around the edges on the Sony.
Overall, the Sharp showed up two minor flaws in the Sony: blues and uniformity (neither being very noticeable), but the Sony was the clear and very decisive winner, as expected.
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